Yes, There’s A ‘Right' Way To Fight In Front Of Your Kids

Married couples fight. Married couples with kids also fight. Know to do it in a way that teaches them healthy lessons is critical.

Last updated on Jul 14, 2023

parents sitting on couch fighting in front of little boy holding a teddy bear fizkes / Shutterstock

Did you watch your parents fight in front of you when you were growing up? Remember vowing that when you got to be an adult, you and your spouse wouldn't be fighting in front of your kids like that?

Yet, studies show that we are more likely to replicate our parenting style based on what we saw in our own family upbringing.

But the good news is that you can break the pattern and not just replicate how you were parented. The biggest predictor of how we will perform as parents is how much we’ve been able to make sense of our own past.


How Parents Fighting in Front of Kids Affects Them

In Psychology Today, Laura Markham, Ph.D., reports that neurological research indicates that when children hear yelling, their stress hormones shoot up. In fact, even a sleeping infant registers loud, angry voices and experiences a rush of stress chemicals that takes some time to diminish.

This biophysical reaction to stress can impact your child’s developmental growth, both psychologically and physically, according to a 2015 study that demonstrated how this caused children to process their emotions differently from other children.

RELATED: What Your Kids Are Thinking When You & Your Spouse Fight In Front Of Them


From your child’s perspective, you, as their parent, are the center of their universe. When an argument between you and your spouse quickly disintegrates into an abusive yelling match, your child’s world can become a scary one.

Developmentally, your child might become anxious and prone to depression, according to a study published in Developmental Psychology, along with various other potential conditions.

Additionally, when mom and dad argue, the child may feel responsible and that it’s their fault.

For example, if the child fails to finish their homework or clear the dishes after dinner, and mom and dad start squabbling later on that evening, the child could internalize this, and perhaps this could cause them to feel guilty for their parents arguing. This could lead the child to feel guilt, shame and other painful, negative emotions that last long after the fight is over.


When parents argue, kids have nowhere to go. In the heat of the battle, the parents are locked into each other, consumed by their own emotions of resentment, miscommunication, and angst over feeling disrespected or unheard.

It’s in these exact moments that the child needs their parents the most to feel a sense of stability and comfort.

A 2008 study further explained this, "Children are invested in feeling emotionally secure within the family unit; exposure to interparental anger and conflict, particularly destructive conflict resolution strategies, undermines their emotional security."

By fighting with each other in their child's presence, the parents effectively make themselves emotionally unavailable to their child. This could cause an upset child to develop maladaptive coping mechanisms, such as internalizing these negative emotions, only to have them surface later as negative behaviors.


According to a study on children's development of adaptive and maladaptive processes as children in response to parenting, the researchers noted, "In distressed relationships chronic negative emotion is both a cause and a consequence of interactions that undermine parents' concerns and children's development."

Over time, your child might cope by withdrawing and isolating, which manifests in a lack of trust and an inability to have successful intimate relationships as an adult.

Regardless of how you were raised or what you’ve witnessed in your own family growing up, today, you have a choice to make a positive difference in your child’s life and the quality of your marriage.

RELATED: 4 Common Conflict Styles That Traumatize Kids (& How Parents Can Handle Arguments Better)


Is it ever OK for parents to fight in front of their kids?

Conflict is part of the human condition, and it matters how you cope with life stressors and react to them in front of your kids.

What do you say when you feel unheard by your spouse? Perhaps it’s dismissive blanket statements or name-calling — at the very least, it’s negative, and, at worst, it's hurtful and likely to lead to an escalated argument.

So it shouldn't come as a surprise when your 3-year-old parrots a snippet from last night's fight, yelling at her doll to “Shut up!” — mimicking your partner's exact tone of voice when they yelled that string of angry words at you last night.

Right now, it’s important to hit the pause button and take a temperature reading of how heated and potentially harmful your marital discord is when on display in front of your kids. What grade would you give your performance?


Some research still supports that conflict between couples causes severe problems for children, ranging from academic issues to social ones and others. Other findings say it’s important to model healthy discord in front of the kids.

It's best for parents to learn how to disagree respectfully without fighting to the point of exploding at each other, productively engaging your partner in respectful ways while still getting your point across.

Bottom line: All couples have disagreements. But it should go without saying that there’s a difference between disagreeing and fighting.

It's best for kids if you model how to handle those disagreements with mutual respect and compassion while looking for solutions instead of blame.


The goal is for your child to observe two adults who are capable of having healthy, respectful disagreements while still treating each other with kindness and decency during and after.

This way, they have the opportunity to hear you both discuss your differences collaboratively.

This also allows your child to learn that successful problem-solving includes thinking about it, communicating their ideas to the other person and finally to listen and learn from the other person.

That's why managing conflict with your partner so that it doesn’t escalate into a screaming match is about effective communication and maintaining boundaries to strike an appropriate balance of conduct between you and your spouse.


RELATED: 5 Communication Hacks To Make Unhealthy Arguments In Your Relationship A Thing Of The Past

How to Model Healthy Conflict Resolution for Your Kids

1. Try to see things from your spouse’s perspective.

Listen and repeat what your partner said to ensure clear communication and make each other feel heard.

“So you’re saying that you want to buy a larger TV and put it in the den? Is that right?”, or, “So I’m hearing you say that you’d rather go fishing on Saturday with the guys and reschedule our plans for another time in a couple of weeks and that you’re going to make it up to me big time? Is that it?” (smile).

Remember that reflecting back is acknowledgment, not agreement.


2. If you have a difference of opinion, voice yours without allowing your anger to get too loud to be heard.

“I’m hearing you say…. Actually, I have a different proposition. I was thinking you could get your large TV, but not quite as large — I just want to make certain it fits on the wall. Can we talk about it some more?”

3. Ask clarifying questions when needed.

Don’t assume.

4. Ground yourself with slow deep breaths as needed.

This will help you stay calm, cool and collected, no matter where the discussion goes.

5. Be a friend, rather than a disgruntled spouse.

Treat your spouse with that same level of respect.

6. Be positive, patient and considerate.

A simple “Thank you” or a warm smile, can change the tone of the entire conversation — or the entire evening.


7. When you notice that you’re both saying the same thing, acknowledge it.

You can say something like, “It sounds like we both agree on this.”

8. Don’t compete to have the last word.

Really, that isn't what matters.

9. Notice your body and emotions.

If you’re upset then say so. “I think I need a break, I’m feeling tense right now, and I don’t want to argue with you.”

10. Be the first to "own it."

If you snap back without thinking, recalibrate and say, “I’m sorry, I just got upset. Please let me try saying that again.”

11. Positively support each other while you’re talking.

Say things like, “That sounds Great!“ or, “Wow — I appreciate you noticing that I did that.”


You might even ask, "How do you feel about that?” or “What is it you need from me right now?”

12. At the end of a difficult discussion, a big hug or smile can tell the kids that there are no hard feelings.

Show them that you can disagree and still end on a good note.

RELATED: How My Parents' Divorce Saved Me And My Sister

What to do if the fight is too big to handle in front of your kids

1. Identify and be prepared to deal with hot topics ahead of time.

Pre-arrange a verbal (such as “nachos” or “mellow yellow”) or nonverbal signal (such as raising your left hand) that will alert your partner to stop the conversation so it can be finished behind closed doors. No Exceptions.


2. Complete the conversation in your bedroom quietly after the kids are asleep.

Or if it’s late, make an appointment to continue the discussion at another time —and keep that appointment.

3. Be mindful not to include your child or children in the discussion.

Do not use your children as messengers, and do not encourage your child to gang up with you on your spouse.

Avoid language like, “Go tell your mother...” or “Give this to your father and tell him, ‘I’ll talk to him when I’m good and ready.”

Be especially diligent about never bad-mouthing your partner. Sentences like, “Your father cheated on me with another woman, but you can’t tell him I told you so,” or, “She is a terrible mother," should never be said in front of your kids.


Ultimately, how you fight in front of your kids teaches them how to handle conflict themselves.

Your kids are a mirror of you. You’ll notice it when they repeat what you say and how you behave. This is more reason to slow things down and self-evaluate your stress levels.

How do you show up in your marriage and family when you’re exhausted, agitated or feel like you’re out of options? How do you feel after having an ugly argument with your spouse and noticing that the entire family seems on edge? What can you do to decompress yourself and the kids?

So be sure to keep one eye open as to how you behave in the next argument you have in front of your kids.


Do you find yourself overreacting frequently to what your husband says? Or, do you jump to conclusions and find yourself negatively reacting to certain words more than others?

When you’re really stressed, perhaps you hear your mother’s critical voice in your head and find that it shadows how you approach parenting in general.

As soon as you decide to do your part differently, the healing begins for you and the whole family.

If you don’t know where to start, or if you feel like you’ve tried but nothing’s changed, then you might need to reassess your efforts and your beliefs about change:

Old Belief: “Nothing will ever change. It’s all their fault!”


New Belief: “I can’t control their behavior, but I can control my own."

If the task seems too big to tackle for you two alone, you could talk to your spouse about seeing a marriage counselor for some co-parenting tips together.

In some cases, therapy doesn't solve the situation, and the best thing you can do for yourself, your marriage, and your children, is part ways with your partner. Your children aren't fooled into believing you're a united front just because you're still wearing wedding bands; they can tell things aren't OK and that there's palpable tension in the house.

If you can demonstrate a relatively amicable split, you're showing your children healthy ways of solving conflict.


Instead of staying in a bad situation for reasons that feel justified but can actually be harmful, especially to emotionally-attuned children, you're demonstrating that it's OK to end an unhealthy relationship for the health of everyone involved.

This doesn't hurt them — it helps them.

The authors of a 2017 study concluded, "Not all youth exposed to hostile marital interactions develop negative responses to marital conflict. Cooperative marital conflict has long been considered as an important way of managing conflict and may serve as an important context in which hostility might convey during marital interactions."

Additionally, the researchers state, "Cooperative marital conflict was associated with decreases in youth emotional dysregulation, perceived threat, and behavioral dysregulation, and increases in constructive family representations and coping efficacy. As a specific dimension of cooperation, effective conflict resolution was associated uniquely with elevated youth coping efficacy, and decreased emotional and behavioral dysregulation; marital warmth was associated uniquely with increased constructive family representations."


Your efforts to positively impact your family can be transformative in powerful ways — including the chart for your life ahead.

RELATED: To The People Who Think Divorced Parents Should've Stayed Together For The Kids

Margot Brown, LMFT, PsyD, is the author of Kickstart Your Relationship Now! Move On Or Move Out, a guide for communication between couples.